INTERVIEW: Athena Dixon, Author of The incredible Shrinking Woman

Interview by Laura Cathcart Robbins

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I spoke with Athena Dixon last month about her sexy, brilliant and courageous collection of essays. The Incredible Shrinking Woman debuts this month with Split/Lip Press.

Book Cover: The Incredible Shrinking Woman by Athena Dixon. Cover is mauve background with mirror image twin Black women with natural hair facing the moon.About the book: A quiet retelling of a life in the background, Athena Dixon’s debut essay collection, The Incredible Shrinking Woman, is a gentle unpacking of the roles she learned to inhabit, growing up as a Black woman in a small Midwestern town, to avoid disruption. But after the implosion of the life she’d always wanted, Dixon must explore the implications of her desire to hide as she rebuilds herself in a world that expects freedom to look boisterous. As Dixon presses the bruises of her invisibility, these essays glide between the pages of fan fiction, the rush of new panties, down the rabbit hole of depression, and reemerge on the other side, speaking with the lived authority of a voice that, even when shaking, is always crystal clear. (Split/Lip Press)


About the Author: A native of Northeast Ohio, Athena Dixon is the author of The Incredible Shrinking Woman (Split/Lip Press) and No God in This Room (Argus House Press). Her work also appears in The BreakBeat Poets Vol. 2: Black Girl Magic (Haymarket Books). Athena’s work has appeared in various publications including GAY Magazineand Narratively. She is founder of Linden Avenue Literary Journal and is the co-host of the New Books in Poetry Podcast via the New Books Network. She resides in Philadelphia. Learn more about the author at

Laura Cathcart Robbins: Your book spoke to me for so many different reasons. I can think of six or seven girlfriends right off the bat that need to read this book. Did you have a reader in mind when you wrote it?

Athena Dixon: I kept coming back to Black women who went to college in like the early two thousands, late nineties. People who really loved what I call the golden age of hip-hop, the late eighties, late nineties—a very specific subset, I know. Maybe people who felt marginalized, not necessarily because of race or ethnicity or socioeconomic status. But marginalized, socially, like on the fringes. So you have friends, but you’re also kind of like always on the outskirts. So that’s who I was really writing for.

LCR: I also consider the 80s and 90s to be the golden age of hip hop. Every reference to that, I was giving you a high five in my head. Like, yes, girl, this! I have become a huge fan of essay collections in recent years, I find them to be really enjoyable, easy to readthere’s less obligation to follow the narrative than with memoir, I think. How would you categorize your book? And how did you come to choose this structure?

AD: I think for me, it started when I was a kid. I wrote short stories, but then the bulk of my writing life has been as a poet. And my poetry is always kind of short and pithy. Like, the longest time I may have written was maybe like two pages. So I kind of approached it that way, I wanted it to be like a series of vignettes.

LCR:  Here’s one of my favorite quotes from the first essay, A Goddess Makes Plantanosfirst of all, I love the reference to your name. I think everyone should be named after a Greek goddess.  

AD: Haha, Thank you.

LCR: “I mash into my skin like the plantanos press, trying to mold myself into something that these men will remember when they’re starving.” I love this so much. I love that you compare your body to food as exotic and delicious as plantanos. Can you talk a little about this essay and why you placed it first?

AD: I was in my late twenties and I’d married into a family that had a lot of Hispanic wives. Plantanos were a very common food that I ate over the time that I was married. And so my mother-in-law at the time offered to buy me a plantanos press. And I thought it was very exotic when I first started eating it. And then I realized how commonplace it was, which kind of made me start thinking about myself. Like, for somebody who’s never experienced me, they might think, “Oh, you’re a little bit fancy or different.” But then when you get to the base of it, I’m like, this staple thing. Something that sustains people. I always felt like that’s how I existed in relationships and friendships. That I’m very much the solid, responsible, nice one. You know it’s there and it’s not asking a lot of you and you can transform it in many ways. Plantanos are the same. You can make it savory. You can make it sweet. You can smash it. I like the idea of sweetness too. Like there’s that sweetness at the edge of the bruise, like soft fruit, like you get that moment of just perfect sweetness before it goes to rot. And that’s like, where I kind of feel like a lot of times I’m living my life, like on the edge, trying to find that perfect moment. When you do capture that, that moment of sweetness, it’s an amazing thing.

LCR: And then why did you place it first?

AD: Um, that was actually a dual decision between me and the publisher. The book itself was in a completely different order when it was accepted, chronological order. She suggested that it might be a good opening essay because it sets the tone for what comes afterwards. I was like, okay, that makes sense. Because that scene takes place after the divorce and before my move to Philadelphia. So it was like the bridge between two different lines. A year after that essay is set, I moved to another state by myself. And so everything that existed before that was gone.

LCR: In Native Tongue you wrote,

“I carried a stick of Teen Spirit deodorant in my backpack because one of the boys sniffed the air every time I entered the room and I was terrified to be the fat Black girl existing in a cloud of stench.”

I was struck by your lack of sugar coating. Fat and Black don’t feel like polite words the way they’re used throughout the essays, and yet you use them so unapologetically. Can you talk a little about that theme?

AD: I think for me, part of it was a moment of being able to be free. Especially in terms of the word, fat.  Outside of being a premature baby, I’ve been big my entire life. And most of the women on my mother’s side of the family are big. Usually, when that word was used towards me, it was in a very negative way and so I did everything I could not to be that.

LCR: Meaning?

AD: You have to sit perfectly in a chair, so it didn’t make a noise. I learned to fold my body in certain ways.  I never tucked my shirt in and never wore shorts. So for a long time, those words held me in a cage. And so I was like, okay, this is what I am, I’m not going to be small. It’s just not in my makeup. And so I can either kind of keep shrinking away from it, or I can just say, this is what it is.

In terms of Black, everything I kind of write is very internal and external. So of course, while growing up people said things like, “you sound like you’re talking white,” or “you listen to white people’s music,” or “you’re not Black enough.” I’m a very sensitive person, so as a kid, I took that to heart. My way of trying to correct that was like, okay, let me find these different versions of blackness and let me figure out where I fit within it. I had to be able to reject all of those things that I internalized over those years.

And I think it also took a lot of people from coming to me and saying, “I’ve kind of admired you from a distance,” or “I did this because I was going through my own things.” So it was important to take those two words, fat and Black and see anything that I was unsure about or felt pain against. I very much am a fat person. I am very much a Black person and they are fundamental ways as I move through the world.

Headshot of Athena Dixon, a Black woman wearing cats-eye glasses, gold earrings, and a red shirt.

Athena Dixon

LCR: That reminds me of queer and how that word was a slur. And then it was claimed by people from that community, so it could no longer be weaponized against them. 

AD: Yes!

LCR: I really enjoyed how sexual you made your narrator. In the essay 50% Off, you bring us into a scene with a man’s head buttressed between your narrator’s thighs.  

AD: Haha, Yes.

LCR: In Fat Girl’s Take Lovers Too, during your sexcapades with Mr. Philadelphia you take us beautifully through the stages of sex with a new partner. Why was it important for your narrator to be seen as sexual?

AD: I’ve never overtly felt sexy.  I’m very much approached in terms of, “you’re very nice, a girl to take home to Mom,”  but nobody’s ever been like, “Athena, you are sexy.” I think part of it too, is being a person who lost my virginity very late and then marrying the person that I lost my virginity to. I didn’t feel competent enough to ever let anybody see. So it was important for me to be able to say, okay, this is a part of me and I have to be able to like deal with it because I have to be able to take ownership of my own pleasure, ownership of my own body in ways that are not just like, I’m a fat person. I’m a fat person who also has desires.

LCR: Your narrator is described as tall, fat and dark-skinned.  The opposite, I think of invisible.  Can you talk about The Incredible Shrinking Woman? What inspired it and what happened after you wrote it?

AD: I wrote that essay on my phone on a plane somewhere over Utah. I was flying to a writer’s conference on a plane and the woman in front of me was a similar size to me. She was a white woman. And the entire flight from Philadelphia to San Francisco, it felt like she was exercising in her seat, moving and bumping. She kept rocking into my knees and I was getting very angry. I get very angry sometimes, but I’ve learned how to push it down.

So my solution to that was okay, I’m just going to write something on my phone. So I started writing about my discomfort and then that morphed into me writing about why I felt uncomfortable in that seat to start. And so I wrote the essay, went to the writer’s conference for like a week, came home, emailed it to myself from my phone and worked on it. I may have added a paragraph or two towards the end and then submitted it.

I submitted it on a Saturday. I got an acceptance on a Monday and it got published on Wednesday. The least work I’ve ever done on an essay!  I was actually shocked, it started as a way for me to control my anger because I did not want to be the angry Black lady on the plane, because that would have been a whole other situation that I was not prepared to deal with.

LCR: But that’s a writer’s dream!  You channeled your anger into creativity and then popped out with this amazing piece of literature. I wonder, do you think that this collection would have the same impact on the reader if it was written through the lens of an overweight white woman?

Headshot: Athena Dixon in turquoise shirtAD: I don’t think so. There’s a part of me that would believe that the focus would wholly be on the idea of the body and not everything in a way below the surface. I think because there’s another layer that gets added to this idea of fatness in relation to Blackness. So I think, as a Black woman, that if it’s a situation where you’re being seen as a caretaker or some kind of work-horse or some kind of mule, then you are very much visible. But you’re also invisible because you’re not an actual person to them. With regular feminism, oftentimes I think Black women also have to forgo one portion of themselves. So I think that if some of the essays are written by a person who was not Black, specifically white, that there wouldn’t be a dual focus. Just one, the idea of body image and positivity and how that blossoms out and not then the additional layer of, ‘now this body is sexualized in a certain way because of the color of my skin.’ And it’s sexualized in a certain way because of my size and it’s ignored for those same reasons.

LCR: There is a whole lane for white women to talk about body positivity that is not as available to us without that other identity, which is so important. How do you identify by the way?

AD: In terms of background, I identify as a Black heterosexual, ciswoman, a Midwesterner, a suicide attempt survivor, depressed, a writer who is lonely and joyous at the same time.

LCR: Alright. So I wanted to talk about online dating. I feel like it’s having a major renaissance right now because of COVID. Virtual dating comes up several times in your book. In Skype and The Single Girl, you write about a relationship that happens entirely online. At one point, I think there was a stigma around online dating so I thought it was a brilliant peek into how these types of relationships can be formed and how real they are to the participants. Why was it important to write about this so candidly?

AD: Even though me and this particular person you’ve never met in real life, we have been communicating, just, not just Skype sex, but just like in terms of phone calls and video chats and text messages for eight years. We met in July of 2012, he sent me a random DM on Tumblr of all places. My bio said I was a nerd or something like that and he wrote me back and said, “You’re not a nerd.” And then we got to this fake argument about it, that was how we met each other. This was before my divorce was finalized and he kind of was a person who gave me this, feeling that I was desirable. Which is why eight years later, we still have communication because we have a very specific mold of each other’s lives.

Every other relationship I’ve ever had, has been through social media or online dating. And I think for me is because I’m not what society deems attractive, like by social standards. I’m tall, I have natural hair, tattoos, I’m not like what you see promoted as beautiful or attractive. And so for me, when I was younger, it was a lot easier for me to attract partners through social media and chat rooms because I could use my words and I’m very good with words. I’ve had somebody tell me before that your relationship isn’t real, because I’d met them online. I’m like, they’re very real people. I also think things like Yahoo! chat rooms, sparks something nostalgic. But it was important because it has been the driving force behind my dating life. My entire adult life really.

LCR: I love your cover art so much. When I look at it I see a strong beautiful single woman. But I know that some people wondered why she wasn’t fatter.  Why was this the imagery you choose and what do you say to those who have questions about her size?

AD: The artist was actually sitting next to me during a workshop in Berkeley. She was taking notes and she was doing sketches. We all have a private Facebook group and I follow her on Instagram. So when it came to picking the cover art, I said, to the publisher, “I really, really like her art.” They came up with this idea and we added, what we call, the moon cover. I wanted to make sure that she was identifiable as Black. You can tell them that she has natural hair and I wanted her to have some curve, but she’s not necessarily a representation of me. I could see why it may be an issue for some people that she’s not bigger. Or, maybe she doesn’t have enough clothes on or whatever other criticism somebody said. Maybe it’s like clickbait. But I guess cover art should be good clickbait. I chose another Black woman to have her art be put on the cover of a book that will be seen, make sure her name is put out there. And that was important to me. It was important that I could pick out the symbolism in it.


I chose another Black woman to have her art be put on the cover of a book that will be seen, make sure her name is put out there. And that was important to me.


LCR: I applaud your choices and I love that she has natural hair and is identifiably black and that it was a Black artist who is female as well, bravo!  I’d like to know your thoughts about launching during the pandemic. Does it feel like a solo experience? Like you are doing this in a vacuum? 

AD: At first I didn’t think that I wouldn’t be launching a book during the pandemic, because my book got accepted back in January.  I was thinking, “Okay maybe by the fall it’ll be under control and we can do some in-person events.”

LCR: I don’t think anyone knew what we were in for in January. 

AD: Right? I’m very glad that I did not buy my parents’ plane tickets to come here for the party because it would have been a disaster.  I will be a hundred percent honest and say that I was very angry. It took me so long to get this collection published and put it out into the world. And of course, it would be a global pandemic the year my book comes out.  I was very mad. And then I was very upset that conferences and things were starting to get canceled. I had to cancel my launch plans. I was really looking forward to having my own little mini book tour. But it doesn’t feel solo because like the press itself is very, very hands-on and very into making sure I’m kept up to date. I have a slew of readings to do coming up and a couple of conferences that I’m doing, so it doesn’t feel subtle in that fashion.

The other consolation is that when I get my box of sample books, I have two of my friends here in Philly and they’re going to come over with their masks, liquor, and food and do a little unboxing with me. The other thing is that I’m so excited for this book coming out, but I know that there are so many other things in the world going on. I really sit down with myself and say, ‘Okay, yes, there are horrible things going on in this world and your attention is there too, but you worked hard to get to this point and you still have to be able to celebrate it.’

So it’s been this weird balance of trying to be very, very excited and happy for myself, but also trying to stay connected to like the real world and what’s going on outside of this creative life.

LCR: Do you consider yourself to be a role model for Black female writers? Why is that important? What do you want to say to them?

AD: I would like to consider myself like a gateway or a springboard. One of the things I’m very, very serious about and conscious of is that whatever platform or door that I have, I want to make sure where I give that same opportunity to somebody else. I do video diaries on Instagram sometimes, and I did one on fan-fiction the other day and talked about how I think that fiction writers get a bad rap. It’s the same reason that I’m very happy that Linden Avenue Literary Journal [The magazine that Athena founded in 2012] is still staffed by Black women eight years later because that gives Black women editorial experience that they can use to springboard into something else, which is why I have no problems like writing recommendation letters for people.

LCR: That’s incredibly generous of you.

AD: Oh, I read stuff for an edit for free all the time without consideration. I know what it’s like to feel like on the outskirts of the literary community and I want to share whatever small inroads I’ve made. So I don’t necessarily see myself as a role model, but I want them to see me as a resource. I think sometimes as Black women, we’re expected to sound strong all the time. We’re expected to be passionate in an outward manner and to know everything. I want to say that it’s okay not to know everything. It’s okay to say no, it’s okay to be quieter. It’s okay to exist outside of these very narrow boxes that people put us in. There’s going to be somebody like you out there who needs to hear your voice. It took a very long time for me to get to that point. Imposter syndrome is a thing, but there is a person or a group of people who may need to hear what you have to say and the way that you deliver that might be the thing that sparks something in them versus what they’ve been hearing before you.


“There’s going to be somebody like you out there who needs to hear your voice…. Imposter syndrome is a thing, but there is a person or a group of people who may need to hear what you have to say, and the way that you deliver that might be the thing that sparks something in them…”


LCR:  Was there someone in particular who was that person for you, you heard their voice and it gave you that permission?

AD: Um, there’s two that I can think of right off the top of my head. The first is Kelly Harris DeBerry. I met her my first tour through undergrad and I was very, very shy. And she was president of the Black poetry group on campus. And she was the first person who forced me to share my work.

And then the second is my friend, Betty Myers. I met her on my second tour through undergrad* I was at an open mic and I used to go every week and sit by myself at a table and not talk to anybody the one week she came up and she said at the table, and she said, I’m not leaving this table until you talk to me. She was the first Black woman that I could actively remember who just lived a joyous, adventurous life, like gardening and throwing community events. She would feed me when I was poor in college.

*Athena’s degrees include: a BA in sociology from Kent State University, a BA in English from Youngstown State University, and an MFA in creative writing from Queens University of Charlotte.

LCR: So, I talked about a lot of my favorite essays, but there are so many more; Vagina Slightly Used, Reader Insert and Depression Is A Pair Of Panties to name a few. I know it’s like asking someone to name their favorite children, but do you have any favorites? 

AD: I will say that I like Karaoke just because every time I think about it, I remember that night. It was just pure, like a jolt of joy and fun. I’m very, very lucky to have those people here in Philly as my chosen family. Liturgy, just because it was the first time they’ve ever written about my high school sweetheart and I never fully mourned him until I wrote that essay. I would also say Lakeshore because I think I packed a lot into that little mistake. I have some that I like more than others, but I think those are the ones that I kind of gravitate towards,

LCR: Athena, what’s next for you?

AD: I finished a novel back in June and it is being worked on behind the scenes for some things.

LCR: A new novel! That’s so fast.  What genre is it?

AD: It’s a hybrid novel of romance and a little bit of intrigue, mixed together. It’s called Legacy and it’s set in 1969 Oakland, among the Black Panther Party. It follows Julia Johnson, who was the only Black attorney in her powerful law firm, and Eric Thomas, who was director of a community school and how they’re working together to kind of expose and put a stop to gentrification of their oceanfront, ultra neighborhoods.

LCR: I love it already.

AD: They find out this developmental corporation is kind of like stealing a neighborhood from under everybody and you’re trying to like expose it. The FBI gets involved at some point.  I’m also working on a “Choose your own adventure novel for adults.”

LCR:  Really? That’s amazing. Tell me how that works. 

AD: I originally wanted to write a story about a woman who was obsessed with a podcast and the podcast was telling her what to do. But I changed it to her being obsessed with this app. And so the choices that you have to make in the story are actually prompts from the app. So you get to flip to whatever page and then alter the story. So it’s like two stories within each other.

LCR: Incredible, thank you, Athena.  I was a little nervous but you were so gracious and your book is phenomenal. 

AD: Thank you, Laura.

The Incredible Shrinking Woman releases September 15, 2020 with Split/Lip Press.


About the Contributor: Headshot of Laura C. RobbinsLaura Cathcart Robbins is a freelance culture writer and host of the popular podcast, The Only One In The Room, living in Studio City, California, with her son, Justin, and her boyfriend and producer, Scott Slaughter.  She has been active for many years as a speaker and school trustee and is credited for creating The Buckley School’s nationally recognized committee on Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion. Her recent articles in the Huffington Post on the subjects of race, recovery, and divorce have garnered her worldwide acclaim. She is a 2018 LA Moth StorySlam winner and currently sits on the advisory board for the San Diego Writer’s Festival and the Outliers HQ podcast Festival.  Laura is also a founding member of Moving Forewords, the first national memoirist collective of its kind. Find out more about her on her website, or you can look for her on Facebook, on Instagram and follow her on Twitter.


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